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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Three



Slow Reading


It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

― George Orwell, 1984



I have two friends and a NY Times celebrity "friend" (Michelle Goldberg) who are all reading Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light. I treated myself to a hardback edition for my birthday at Inquiring Minds, an independent bookstore in town where I'd had my "Say Nothing" reading. I went there on the Monday of the very week in March—March 9th—we went into lockdown. By Wednesday I was teaching my NYU class remotely and awkwardly. I didn't start the book until many weeks later. There was too much to do, too much to think about; I couldn't settle to fiction. And Mantel's devices and language are difficult; she's an innovative writer. I manage about five pages a day at the end of the day, usually on the deck in the fading light. I take up my chair, some water, my phone and my exhaustion, not only from a day of work, but from all the bits and pieces of life's challenges we must sift and organize every day during this pandemic, intensified again since the SUNY students are back on campus and many are walking around unmasked. I watch the vultures, eagles and hawks hunt in the orchard, set the Pandora to medieval music, and begin to read the odd words and unfamiliar syntax at a painstaking pace, savoring every phrase and sentence. The book is over 700 pages. Yesterday I hit Page 413. The Machiavellian Thomas Cromwell has organized a marriage for his son, Gregory. The woman in question thought she was going to marry Thomas Cromwell himself, a wishful misunderstanding. Several pages ensue of embarrassment and Cromwellian charm and manipulation. It's riveting. And though I am sure that an actor reading this sequence would bring it to life in his or her own way, I relish the voices surfacing in my imagination without the mediation of a professional reader. The connection between an author's words on the page and another writer reading these words is instantaneous. It enables us to reflect on how a book is made, and what choices the writer has made to tell the story.

I am usually a fast reader—I can even speed read—but have not always been a fast reader, much less a reader. I don't think my parents ever had time or inclination to read to me when I was a child. I do remember reading Nancy Drew mysteries to my baby sister and enjoying that experience, but it wasn't really until my first boyfriend started throwing books at me during the summer before I started college that I took the purpose of reading seriously. His name was Steve, and if he's out there somewhere, I thank him, both for the love affair and for the books. The glove compartment of his rickety Renault was overflowing with paperbacks. The usual conversation between teens in love, whatever that might be, didn't interest him, and it didn't interest me. His parents were chicken farmers—educated, political chicken farmers. I didn't get them then; I do now. They were blacklisted and were hiding out in Tom's River, NJ. Alongside Dickens and Dostoevsky, the books in the glove compartment had titles I'd never heard of before, such as The Ugly American, a political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that depicts the failures of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Southeast Asia. That book led me to Graham Greene's The Quiet American, and beyond. That is what books do: they lead us from one subject to another, from one thinker to another. Knowledge accrues, curiosity is stimulated, our world widens.

Recently, a high school senior told me that he doesn't read very much, and he doesn't listen to audio books, either. Even some of my NYU students confess that they only read articles online; they rarely hold a book in their hands. I am troubled by the dearth of knowledge implied in this revelation, especially at a moment in our history when propaganda rather than fact and considered opinion floods our media. A functioning democracy requires an educated, deep-thinking population, as well as educators who demand commitment and rigor in the classroom, whether it is virtual or real.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two


The Anti-Vaxxers



Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.

I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.


And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.

My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.


Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?

Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.

People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org (link is external)or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-One



Conversations About Pizza in a Plague Year



We're here because this moment demands an explanation.


Michael Barbaro, The NY Times Daily


It's not often I have an opportunity to converse about pizza while ordering a curbside pick-up from the pharmacy. I didn't tell the man who was gathering my order that I was eager to have a conversation even though I am on the phone a lot and have a shelter-in-place partner. I love to talk and to ask lots of questions. Connection is my occupation; I'm a curious journalist. The pandemic has slowed me down. I don't like it. No wonder I've become addicted to M&Ms. I always include two bags with my order, a staple since #covidcurbsidepickup began. I wanted to make sure the M&Ms were in the bag. Had I forgotten to mention them? "No, you didn't," he said. "They're right here." Of course, pharmacy guy also knows my name as I'm a regular and he has to take my credit card. And his name, well I know it, but won't mention it here, I'm too distracted. Please note, dear reader: there is nothing unusual about distraction during a pandemic.

The conversation about pizza began because I had a torn green bag--a giveaway from a local pizza parlor-- on the front seat, and long ago, in another life, I'd had a conversation with this selfsame man gathering my pharmacy order about pizza and how pizza always arrives in a cardboard box, which is environmentally correct. The "no plastic bag law" had gone into effect in our town before the pandemic, but it is now all but forgotten. Plastic bags everywhere. The proprietor of my favorite pizza parlor had bought a bunch of green canvas bags logo-ed in big white letters with his personal name, which is also the name of the pizza parlor: Rino's. Rino's is in the same mall as Ignite, the gym we can no longer enter. I know Rino—we both preferred the same bike at the gym when the word "gym" was still in our morning lexicon—and sometimes he was using it when I arrived for a work-out, and sometimes I was using it when he arrived. He made good pizza. I liked his pizza. And even though the new canvas bags were thin and ripped easily, I didn't complain.

The guy at the pharmacy had never agreed about the quality of Rino's pizza. He reiterated this critique during our #covidcurbsidepickup conversation, and I replied with compliments: "Rino has been doing a great job with deliveries during the pandemic, albeit he's using plastic bags." I said. But the pharmacy guy grew up in Brooklyn. "The only good pizza is made in Brooklyn," he said, yet again, not referring to the backslide into plastic bags.

"The crust is too thin," the pharmacy guy continued.

"Oh, you still only like thick crust?" I asked. "You haven't changed your mind?"

"Thin crust is okay when there is a lot of stuff on it," he reminded me.

"But what if you don't want a lot of stuff on it? Just cheese? Or just veggies?"

"Well, then, I guess a thin crust is okay."

"So, you agree with me after all?" I said.

"I don't eat veggie pizza," the guy said.

I was prolonging the conversation. I didn't want to get back to work or find out what volcano had erupted in the Senate that day. But the guy was eager to get on with his next order. I was taking too much of his time and it was all on the phone, whereas our previous conversation about pizza had taken place F2F. It's easy to linger F2F and delay a good-bye. Now there was a line of cars behind me at the curb waiting for their pick-ups, so I said, "Okay, I don't have anything else to say about pizza right now." Some conversations don't last long. A conversation about pizza during a pandemic is one of them.





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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty






A new Cold War-like atmosphere is engulfing science. The science we need to solve world problems like pandemics and challenges from climate change cannot be achieved without politically neutral agendas where the global public good is paramount.


– Helle Porsdam, Professor of Law and Humanities and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Rights at the University of Copenhagen




We have just recovered from a fast-moving, fierce, too-early- in- the-season hurricane, Hurricane Isaias. It ripped down trees and wires, knocked out power and cable. Like the arrival of a dread, still mysterious virus, our 21st century digital lives were upended. If we are poor, our lives continue to upend. Hardship on top of hardship.

When I was a kid in New York City, I always wanted to watch the hurricanes arriving. All up and down West End Avenue, canopies were taken down and, on Broadway, protections raised on plate glass windows. I could hardly contain my excitement that I'd have a day off school. Weather drama. Hurricane Holiday. But storms have worsened, and drama is not what we want or need any more, especially during a pandemic. The two events are scientifically connected; it's long past time to pay attention.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center started naming hurricanes in the early 1950s. Now, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), a UN agency with 193 member countries, generates the list of hurricane names--male and female these days-- and oversees the global response to climate change and the effects of climate change.

"Still no internet here," I wrote on my FB page the morning after the storm as I answered posts from near and far. Like COVID, everyone's experience was different, on a spectrum of "sheltering in a basement with two cats" to "not much, a mild case." It's a reminder that every human life and circumstance is of concern, no story to be disregarded. When a storm or a pandemic hits one country and one family, it hits us all.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Twenty-Nine

Photo of a sunset © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020



Sunsets & Flowers



The human spirit creates freedom.


 -Ben Okri



And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.


                                        -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince



When most news is still bad news, I notice that sunsets and flowers get the most FB and Instagram hits, whereas more serious posts do not. It is as though, by reading them, we risk defeat, we risk unremitting sorrow. Sufferation, the Jamaicans call it. Best not allow the bad news to saturate our spirits. Take a road trip, break bubbles and pods to visit family across state lines, why not? Settle into a big book and read slowly contemplating every word, savoring each phrase. Inside the book there is no danger, no denial. Stay very still. Shut the pundits down. Go for a walk. Admire the sunsets and flowers.


Why this sardonic prologue today rather than a story or an interview? Because, dear reader, I have two beloved friends in nursing homes, and the autistic son of another is in an institution, and I am full of unremitting sorrow for them and their families. On a drive up the mountain for a distance swim with my daughter in her pond the other day, I missed these friends who have unwittingly become "inmates," and thought, "When will I ever see them again? And will they survive this pandemic?" The radio was tuned to 94.3, "light" FM. I wailed:  I'm never gonna let you go/ I'm gonna hold you in my arms forever,,,


There is something here, as I write, that feels helpful as I surface from these dark thoughts, as well as two difficult encounters, one with a neighbor, the other at the pool—masks, distance, protocols, compliance—endless conversations. Both incidents were verging on violence, the one physical, the other verbal, though there was threat in both. And though I consider myself a citizen journalist, I never expect disrespect, or worse; incivility and hatred always take me by surprise. But America is aflame with rage and accusation.


What would my observant, kind friend Harmer have said as I recounted these incidents? What would my astute no nonsense friend Josephine have said? I remember the last time I saw them both and cherish those penultimate, or ultimate, face-to-face conversations, over lunch, over dinner, arms around one another in a warm good-bye.


I lament the callous disregard of the regime in Washington that has prolonged the separation of friends and family and endangered all of us. Only a vaccine and a vigorous and protected election will set us free.



This post is dedicated to Harmer Johnson, Josephine Feagley and Gerard's TJ.


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